The Christmas We Gave Away
By Marilyn Ellsworth Swinyard
The Christmas I remember best began with tragedy. It happened at 6 a.m. on one of those crisp Idaho Falls mornings the day before Christmas. Our neighbors, the Jesse Smith family, slept peacefully in their two-story home. The baby, barely six months old, was in a crib next to her parents’ room, and the three older children were upstairs.
Suddenly something jarred Jesse from his sleep. He thought he smelled smoke. Could a spark from the torch he’d defrosted the frozen water pipes with the day before have started a fire in the basement? Still half asleep, he stumbled to the bedroom door and flung it open. Clouds of black smoke poured into the room. “Lorraine!” he yelled. “Get the baby!” He ran toward the stairs and his sleeping children. The smoke was thicker as he gasped for breath. “Rick! Tom! Wake up!” The boys scrambled out of their beds. “Run, boys!” Tom grabbed his younger brother’s hand, and they raced down the smoke-filled stairway to safety. His daughter’s room was next. As Jesse groped through the heavy shroud of gray, he called, “Cindy! Cindy! Where are you?”
“Here, Daddy, here!” He followed the frightened cries, scooped up his daughter in his arms, and with his hand over her face, felt his way out the room and down through a narrow path of searing flames. They coughed, choked, gasped for breath, until they at last stumbled out the door where a relieved wife and three children stood shivering in the snow.
Now the family looked to the smoke and flames pouring out the roof of their home, the home that the night before had held all their earthly treasures. It had also held a promise of Christmas, mulled cider, homemade candy, and stockings waiting to be filled. They stood huddled in their nightclothes, barefoot in the biting cold, and watched their Christmas burn up along with their house.
The spell was broken by the sound of sirens piercing the icy air. Firemen leaped from the huge red trucks and turned their powerful hoses on the blaze. Seconds later, the bishop of the Smiths’ ward drove up, bundled the family into his car, and took them to a home the ward elders quorum had just completed as a fund-raising project. They were not to witness the firemen’s hopeless battle with the flames. For when the trucks finally pulled away, this time in silence, nothing stood of their house but its charred skeleton outlined against the sky.
And tomorrow was Christmas. At our house we were putting the last secret wrappings on the presents, making the last batch of popcorn for popcorn balls to go in our Christmas stockings. We three children were attempting dubious harmony with our favorite carols and breaking into giggles at the results.
Then Dad came in with the news. We sat with serious faces listening to him tell of the fire, the narrow escape, the house where the Smiths were spending Christmas Eve.
Why? Mother said. Why did this happen, just at Christmas? It isn’t fair. They had children, just the same ages as ours, she said. Jesse and Dad were the closest friends; they even joked that they were so close they wore the same size shirt. The same size shirt! “Bill,” Mother began hesitantly, “would you mind terribly if we gave Jesse one of the shirts I bought you for Christmas? You wear the same size …” A hush fell on us all. We all seemed to be thinking the exact same thing. “I’ve got it!” my ten-year-old brother shouted. “We’ll give the Smiths a Christmas! A Christmas for Christmas!” “Where could we get one?” my inquisitive little sister asked. “We’ll give them ours,” the others chorused in.
“Of course! We’ll give them ours!” The house rang with excited voices, until Dad’s stern command silenced us. “Hold it! Let’s make sure we all want to do this. Let’s take a vote. All in favor say aye.”
“AYE!” chorused back at him. “All opposed?” was met with silence.
The hours that followed are ones we will never forget. First we sat around the tree and handed out presents. Instead of opening them, the giver would divulge their contents so the label could be changed to the appropriate Smith family member. My heart fell when Dad handed Kevin a box wrapped in gold foil and green ribbon. “It’s a baseball glove, son,” Dad told him, and a flash of disappointment crossed Kevin’s face. I knew how he’d longed for that glove, and Dad wanted to say, “You keep it, son,” but Kevin smiled as if he’d read our thoughts. “Thanks, Dad. It’s just what Stan wanted, too,” he re-plied.
“Look, here’s the recipe holder I made for you, that is, for Sister Smith.” We signed all the tags “From Santa,” and the activity that followed would have put his workshop elves to shame.
They had presents, but what about a Christmas dinner? The turkey was cooked, pies baked, the carrots and celery prepared, and then all packed in a box. The Christmas stockings must be stuffed. Dad got a length of clothesline and some clothespins to hang the stockings with, but what about a tree? We looked at ours. Could we really part with it? “I know,” Dad volunteered. “Let’s decorate it with things they’ll need.” And so more things were added to the tree: a tube of toothpaste tied with red ribbon, a razor, comb, bars of soap nestled in the branches. Finally it was all ready.
It was a strange procession that silently paraded through the dark streets of Idaho Falls that night. Father led the way carrying a fully deco-rated tree. Mother followed with a complete Christmas dinner, down to the last dish of cranberry sauce. The three of us children pulled wagons and a sled piled with boxes of gifts. We waited until the last light was out in the Smiths’ borrowed home, and then Mom and Dad stealthily carried each item in the door. When the last stocking had been hung, we turned again toward home.
All the way home I worried about what waited for my family at our home. What if the others were disappointed? All that was left were a few pine needles and paper scraps. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The minute we were back inside we were more excited than ever. Every pine needle and paper scrap was a reminder of the magic of the evening, and we hadn’t taken that to the Smiths. It was in our home as real as if you could see it. A happier family never went to bed on a Christmas Eve, and the next morning the magic was still there. For our celebration we wrote a promise to each person on a card and presented it around a spruce branch tied in a red ribbon.
“One shoe shine. To Father. Love Kevin.” “This is good for two turns doing the evening dishes. Love, your husband Bill.” And so it went.
Our Christmas dinner consisted of scrambled eggs and bacon, toast and sliced oranges. Somehow, I don’t remember a better one. And I know we sang our carols that night with the same unconventional harmony, but it sounded sweeter than angels to me.
“Oh, Mommy,” said my small sister as she snuggled up for her bedtime Christmas story, “I like to give Christmases away.” Tears blurred the book in my mother’s hands, because she knew that none of us would ever forget this Christmas, the one when we gave our best gift. And as she read the story of the Baby born in a manger, it seemed our gift was but a small tribute to him who gave his best gift, his Son to us.